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Dutch and Spanish police have arrested a man and woman suspected of being leaders of a Spanish gang exploiting Roma children.

Four criminal networks are thought to be making some 300 children beg and steal across Europe, on the streets of the Netherlands, on Barcelona’s metro service and suburban area, and in Austria, Bosnia and Croatia.

According to the Dutch public broadcaster, NOS, children are thought to have been stealing €1,000 a day, used by criminal families for expensive cars, houses and gambling.

The Dutch public prosecution service announced on Wednesday that a 46-year-old woman and 49-year-old man were arrested in Barcelona in an early-morning raid, suspected of involvement.

The pair will be extradited to the Netherlands, where they will face charges.

During the arrests on 15 June, conducted with the Catalan Mossos d’Esquadra force, police also discovered six children from 1 to 15, thought to be victims of human trafficking.

Four of the children and the baby – which Catalan police reported was the child of one of the girls – have been taken back to the Netherlands, with the help of The Salvation Army and the Nidos refugee child protection organisation.

Arthur de Rijk, police team leader, told NOS that the investigation began mid-2015, when police repeatedly caught the same child pickpockets at Amsterdam Centraal train station.

“We were investigating where the children were from,” he said. “After an arrest, their parents never came forward. Instead, other family members or so-called relatives came, whom nobody could identify. Something was wrong.”

The police took DNA from two children, and found that a woman claiming to be their mother was actually unrelated. Several children were placed in foster homes, but were tempted by their “families” to run away.

Eventually, the police identified four criminal networks involved in travelling around Europe, making the children beg and steal. They are also suspected of sexually abusing girls.

Warner ten Kate, a Dutch prosecutor, told NOS: “They are exploited, so it is a question of human trafficking. Instead of going to school, from an early age they are taught to steal … The children sometimes have 35 different identities.”

One girl discovered in the reportedly “filthy” house in Barcelona last week is still in Spain, accused of theft, but it is thought that she will eventually return to the Netherlands.

According to a report from the Catalan police force, the arrested woman had sought asylum in the Netherlands in April 2014, with seven children she claimed were hers. She had previously applied for residency under other identities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Police are analysing smartphones, phone cards, cameras, hard drives and personal documents found with the arrested couple, to investigate the suspected criminal organisations.

A spokeswoman from Nidos said that it was up to police to comment, but confirmed that the children were “well, considering the circumstances”.


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